Below are two recent reviews of the book, A Region in Revolt: Mapping the Recent Uprisings in North Africa and West Asia which was recently published by Daraja Press and Transnational Institute. The first review by Emma Wilde Botta was published by the Review of African Political Economy. The second is by Mike Phipps and was published by Labour Hub.
A Year of Revolt
Source: Review of African Political Economy, https://roape.net/2020/11/17/a-year-of-revolt/
Last year a wave of militant protests spread across North Africa and West Asia, in a sustained, historic series of popular struggles. Emma Wilde Botta reviews A Region in Revolt: Mapping the Recent Uprisings in North Africa and West Asia edited by Jade Saab.
By Emma Wilde Botta
November 17, 2020
With so much going on in 2020, it’s easy to forget that just last year the world saw an upsurge in global rebellion. From Hong Kong to Chile to Ecuador to Spain and beyond, people took to the streets to oppose austerity and authoritarianism and to demand radical change. A wave of mass protest spread across North Africa and West Asia, called by some ‘the second Arab Spring.’ In April of 2019, months of mass protest forced Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to abdicate. Later that month, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir was ousted in a military coup. In October, massive demonstrations emerged in Iraq challenging the sectarian political system. Similarly, Lebanon saw an October revolution sparked by a bill that would tax apps like whatsapp. Both countries forced the resignation of their respective governments. In November, people in Iran responded to an increase in fuel prices with mass protests that represented unprecedented opposition to the regime.
These five countries saw militant, sustained, historic popular struggle. The uprisings were a response to decades of political repression, neoliberalism, corruption, patriarchy, and sectarianism. In a notable shift from the 2010-2011 struggles, these revolts shared an understanding that a fundamental restructuring of society is needed to truly address the crises. However, despite their revolutionary character, these movements have received considerably less attention than the 2010-2011 ‘Arab Spring.’
A Region in Revolt: Mapping the Recent Uprisings in North Africa and West Asia edited by Jade Saab is the first and, to my knowledge, only comprehensive review of the uprisings that took place in Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran. Each chapter is written by activist-scholars from the respective country who provide an overview of each country’s specific political and economic conditions. They show that, far from being ahistoric spontaneous events, the 2019 uprisings built upon past struggles, by tracing the legacies of resistance in each country and showing how they have impacted the newly emerged movements.
The authors raise a number of important questions: How do we understand the 2018-2019 revolts? As revolutions? As uprisings? How are these recent movements linked to previous struggles? What will it take to sustain and develop the movements? What tactics were effective? How do socialists relate to protest movements in countries outside of the U.S. sphere of influence? How do we build cross-border solidarity? As we face common global foes, how can we strengthen our interconnected struggles?
This collection of essays provides an account of the 2019 wave of regional struggle from a socialist perspective that centers the agency of ordinary people. The authors model an approach to analyzing social movements and uprisings that takes as its starting point the workers and oppressed in each country, the ordinary millions who – when in motion – make revolt possible. Detailed exploration of various social forces and their historical development lays the foundation for understanding the power structure of each state.
In the case of Algeria and Sudan, the military has played a particular role in political life, and this shaped the trajectory of the uprisings. Following a bloody anti-colonial struggle against France, Algeria was left with the military as the only organized force in society. Sudan’s now deposed president Omar al-Bashir had come to power in a military coup in 1989. In both countries, the military high command had essentially ruled the state behind the façade of democracy for decades. Thus, when the presidents were toppled in April, the movements recognized this as insufficient to fully transform the state. In Sudan, madaniya (civilian rule) became the rallying cry. In Algeria, the protesters called for ‘a civilian state, not a military one.’
The confessional systems of government in Lebanon and Iraq have different origins but similar effects on ruling class formation. The establishment of an identity-based political system in Iraq following the 2003 U.S. invasion drove major sectarian violence. The government’s failure to address unemployment, poverty, and ongoing instability fueled the October revolution, as poor workers and the unemployed youth from the slums of Baghdad called for systemic change. Lebanon’s 1943 National Pact, which allocated government positions on a confessional basis, produced sectarian political parties that have long defended the sectarian political system. In this context, protesters calling for the resignation of all members of the government, chanting kellon yani kellon (all of them means all of them), represented a rejection of sectarianism. The uprisings in Lebanon and to a certain extent in Iraq were notable for their ability to overcome social divisions that had long been used by the governments to foster divisions.
Following the 1979 Iranian revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers established the Islamic Republic, which differed from the previous Pahlavi regime in important ways but maintained the statist character of the economy with strong ties between military and industry. Today, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) led by Ayatollah Khamanei controls 80% of the Iranian economy, making it the de facto state despite the nominal authority of President Hassan Rouhani. While the regime historically used oil wealth for infrastructure projects and social welfare, more recently oil revenue has been funneled into military pursuits and weapons programs, with the rest embezzled by government leaders and their beneficiaries. This left ordinary Iranians in a dire economic situation, the conditions under which they revolted.
In all of the five countries surveyed, the Left was relatively weak prior to 2019 due in large part to regime repression. Official trade unions had long been co-opted. Most Left political parties and politicians had lost legitimacy due to decades of corruption and compromise. In the recent upheavals, people moved into action largely outside of the traditional organizations of the working class and the Left, and sometimes in opposition to them. The authors draw out initial thoughts on lessons learned from these experiences particularly on the questions of organization and strategy.
Arguably, Sudan’s uprising posed the greatest threat to the state. Azza Mustafa and Sara Abbas argue that Sudan’s primary lesson is ‘the importance of organizing and communication between different levels of the movement, the importance of building not one nucleus of leadership, but several.’ On a national level, the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC), an alliance of labor, community, and rebel groups led by the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), forced the military into negotiations, resulting in a sort of dual power situation. Additionally, the main innovation of the December Revolution were the Resistance and Change Committees, neighborhood-level grassroots organizations that coordinated with the SPA/FFC and mobilized for protests, strikes, and mutual aid. The development of these committees was driven in large part by youth who distrusted political parties and elites.
ROAPE’s webinar on ‘Sudan’s Revolution in a World on Fire’ (22 June 2020)
In the four other cases, no single political entity representing the movement emerged. Hamza Hamouchene and Selma Oumari point to the leaderlessness and looseness of the Algerian uprising as its Achilles’ heel and argue for the necessity of coherent revolutionary organizations. In Lebanon, Jade Saab and Joey Ayoub identify sustained decentralized resistance as essential to continuing the movement and point to the need for coalitions that extend beyond electoral politics. Zeidon Alkinani explains that the lack of an organized movement coalition in Iraq was both the greatest strength and greatest weakness of the uprising. On the one hand, a horizontal, decentralized organizing method assuaged fears of a dominating leader, but, on the other hand, unity and collective action were impaired without an overarching united front.
In general, the experiences of 2019 point to the necessity of building long-term infrastructures of resistance to sustain social movements.
The anti-imperialist analysis put forward in the essays is a contribution to a vibrant debate on the international Left about how to understand and fight imperialism. The uprisings in Algeria, Iraq, and Iran explicitly took on questions of imperialism and colonialism. The historical background presented by the authors contextualizes each state’s relationship to international capital and military superpowers.
The Algerian uprising was deeply anti-colonial. Hamouchene and Oumari examine the contradictions that developed as the post-independence governments of Ben Bella and Boumediene pursued state socialist attempts at economic sovereignty. This strategy ultimately produced a state bourgeoisie with strong ties to the military. The authors show how the 2019 movement is ‘a continuation of the decolonial struggle, to fully realize its aims.’ As part of this phenomenon, the movement rejected a proposed hydrocarbon law that would allow multinational corporations greater access to Algeria’s resources. Unsurprisingly, counter-revolutionary attempts to curtail the uprising have been regionally supported by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt.
The 2019 October uprising in Iraq was not the first protest after the 2003 U.S. invasion, but it was qualitatively different from previous efforts. It represented not only a struggle against the sectarian confessional system installed after the 2003 U.S. invasion, but also a rejection of foreign intervention in Iraq, especially by the United States and Iran, in a struggle for self-determination. The movement also saw a new Shiite Iraqi generation distance itself from Iranian political and military proxies.
Similarly, the Iranian protesters condemned Iranian regional intervention. Ayatollah Khamenei and his followers have long used anti-U.S. imperialist rhetoric to justify their rule and destroy opposition. But the economic strain of Iran’s military ventures has taken a toll with U.S. sanctions only compounding the misery. In this context, it is significant that Iranian protesters took up the demand for Iranian foreign interventions to end, echoing the call of popular protests in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen.
This cross-border solidarity among workers and the oppressed has lessons for the international Left, sections of which have been silent on the crimes of the Iranian regime or even openly supported it as a supposed bulwark to U.S. hegemony. In the volume, Frieda Afary emphasizes the importance of an internationalist approach that offers solidarity to social forces struggling against authoritarianism and despotism regardless of the state’s place in the world order.
A Region in Revolt captures all of the hope and inspiration of the 2019 uprisings. One of the most significant achievements of these movements is that, in the words of Hamouchene and Oumari, ‘people discovered their political will and realised they are in control of their own destiny.’ These were undeniably class revolts, fueled by anger over poverty, unemployment, austerity, and corruption. Yet, the people in the streets largely imagined themselves as citizens. The challenges of how to bring people into motion as workers, how to develop independent working-class organizations, and how to develop a political alternative to capitalism continue to be pressing. The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown another obstacle in the way. But there is no doubt that future struggles are on the horizon. A Region in Revolt helps us answer the question of what we can do now to prepare for them.
Emma Wilde Botta is socialist activist and writer based in Oakland, California. She has written extensively on the Arab Spring, the Gulf States, Iran, and US imperialism. Her writing has appeared in TruthOut, the International Socialist Review, roape.net and Socialist Worker.
Source: Review of African Political Economy, https://roape.net/2020/11/17/a-year-of-revolt/
United We Stand: Anatomy of Five Revolutions
November 26, 2020
Source: Labour Hub, https://labourhub.org.uk/2020/11/26/united-we-stand-anatomy-of-five-revolutions/
Mike Phipps reviews A Region in revolt: Mapping the recent uprisings in North Africa and West Asia, edited by Jade Saab, published by Daraja Press (Ottawa) & TNI (Amsterdam)
We are nearly ten years on from the Arab Spring, a series of uprisings across the Middle East. When it began, argues Jade Saab in this important new book, it “was presented to the world through an orientalist lens… the awakening of the backwards Arab world.”
For the west, it provided retroactive justification for the invasion of Iraq: “All democracy in the region needed was a nudge in the form of an illegal invasion and a million dead civilians.” This narrative allowed reactionary regimes in the region to paint the uprisings as western plots to destabilise their countries. Both these interpretations were bolstered by military interventions in Libya, Syria and Yemen.
These military interventions upped the stakes considerably for any nascent popular uprising. If movements called for the fall of the regime, the regime could respond: “Do you want to become another Syria?” Yet the uprisings continued, and it is not too hyperbolic to refer to the last couple of years as a Second Arab Spring.
This second wave is the focus of this book. The demands raised by these uprisings go beyond a change of political leadership: they call for a fundamental restructuring of society. The countries in question share similar political economies with an emphasis on extractivism and speculative investment. The spoils of these activities bypass ordinary people, fuelling the migration of skilled labour out of the region and massive rates of unemployment, especially among young people.
They also share a common problem: “Debilitating national debt means that foreign finance has a vested interest in maintaining ‘stability’ in the region.” So unlike during the 2011 Arab Spring, “Western nations have refused to withdraw support from the various ruling classes in the region even though the intensity of protests has reached similar levels.”
There has also been an absence of international solidarity in some cases. The influence of Cold War bi-polarity that licenses some socialists to support repressive regimes because of their supposed ‘anti-imperialism’ is challenged in these essays, mostly written by members of the Alliance of Middle Eastern and North African Socialists.
Iran is a case in point. A recent ‘Letter Against US Imperialism’ by leftist intellectuals denounced protestors, who took to the streets to oppose the corrupt theocratic regime. On 15th November 2019, over two hundred thousand people in mostly working-class areas rose up in over a hundred cities and rural regions during four days of protest against a 300% rise in the price of petroleum. The protestors were predominantly unemployed and students, with many women in the forefront. The Iranian government responded with a shoot-to-kill policy, killing 1,500, and arrested over 7,000 people. These protestors deserve our solidarity.
The parallel state of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps owns 80% of the economy and acts as a force for repressing labour, youth, women and oppressed minority struggles in the country. Iran’s military interventions in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen and its nuclear programme squander billions of dollars. Add to that US sanctions which have reduced Iran’s oil sales from 2.5 million barrels a day to 300 to 600,000 after July 2018, and the Iranian economy is on the brink of collapse, with 60% of the population unemployed and below the poverty line.
Attempts by the regime to stoke nationalist sentiment following the US assassination of General Qassem Soleimani backfired when, in retaliation, it mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian plane over Tehran, killing all 176 passengers. Once again, students were in the forefront of protests, bravely raising anti-government slogans. Only the global pandemic, much more severe in Iran than elsewhere because the authoritarian regime hid its full impact, curtailed the protests.
In Iraq, the roots of the recent protests lie, as chapter author Zeidon Alkinani correctly observes, in the US-led invasion and occupation of 2003, which introduced a sectarian quota system for elections and the distribution of government posts. This fuelled a “significant political and cultural system of identity polarisation,” which saw the country succumb to major sectarian violence in the ensuing years.
What was significant about the protests in the south of Iraq from 2018 on and in Baghdad the following year was their disdain for sectarian affiliation. They focused on 15 years of the corrupt sectarian government’s failure to provide basic services like clean water, or jobs for graduates. Fierce state repression against peaceful protestors provoked country-wide anger. In Baghdad, young protestors, with many women to the fore, took over Tahrir Square, an act which was emulated in cities elsewhere.
Following a massacre of 24 protesters in Nasriyah, Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi announced his resignation on 29th November 2019. The involvement of Iranian-backed militias in the violent suppression of the protests – nearly 800 killed and 30,000 injured – fuelled increased hostility to Iran. But in fact the protestors were demanding an overhaul of the entire sectarian constitution which had made the militias so powerful.
This point needs underlining. One can over-emphasise, as the author perhaps does, the involvement of forces like the adherents of Muqtada al-Sadr, who lent support to the protests when it suited them. But the overwhelming majority of protestors were independent of any political party, transcending religious, gender and regional divides. As one protestor declared: “We want those in power to be put on trial, and we want to choose from a new pool of people who have nothing to do with the traditional parties that have blood on their hands.”
As I have noted elsewhere, “Millions have taken part. On Tahrir Square, Baghdad, bakers, restaurateurs, doctors and nurses and hairdressers have all offered their services free of charge. In the process, a genuinely popular, secular movement is battling against the corrupt sectarian system of governance that the US occupation has bequeathed to Iraq.”
So it was significant when, last December, Iraq’s parliament passed a new electoral law that transitions elections to a first-past-the-post system, which allowed voters to select individuals rather than use party lists, which have become the creatures of ethnic and religious patronage. Notwithstanding continued repression and the complication of coronavirus, these protests are unlikely to disappear as long as the economic and political rationale for them continues to exist.
The sectarian system of governance in Iraq has been long-established in Lebanon. But here too it is precisely younger people who are far less defined by their religious or ethnic identity. And given the role of social media tools in the spread of the Arab Spring protests, what single act could be more provocative than to introduce a tax on the use of Whatsapp? But that’s exactly what the Lebanese government did in October 2019.
The contrast in outlooks was revealed in the response to wildfires that ravaged the country that month. While civilians of all backgrounds, including from the Palestinian refugee camps, banded together to try and put the fires out, government politicians scapegoated different minorities for starting them.
Frustrations at government incompetence – and the new tax in particular -fuelled huge protests which shut down much of the country. The conditions for these had been developing over a long period as successive governments imposed austerity and practised corruption. But what was new was the unprecedented solidarity against the political class. As different party leaders tried to co-opt the movement, protestors responded by banning the display of any party flags and even expelling several politicians and known media personalities with party affiliations from the spaces they had reclaimed.
Four key demands crystallised: the resignation of the government; the formation of a smaller body of technocratic representatives; the freezing of all previous politicians’ assets; and a new secular electoral law in preparation for early elections. In response, the prime minister announced a limited reform package, which the protestors immediately rejected. Meanwhile the army declared it would stop any act of violence against protesters and refuse to forcefully remove protesters or clear roadblocks. A general state of civil disobedience continued, along with a de-facto general strike and a carnival mood in the squares.
Hours after supporters of the Shia Amal Movement and Hezbollah had rampaged through downtown Beirut, attacking everyone in their way, the Prime Minister resigned on 29th October. This was a victory, but it also underlined a key weakness in the movement: its avowedly non-political status which led to the demand for a transitory technocratic government, giving the impression that Lebanon’s problems were purely scientific and could be easily remedied through legal routes. This was not so.
By November, the screws were tightening on the protest movement. Banks introduced unofficial capital controls, the army was forcibly opening roads, there were more attacks by Amal and Hezbollah on the protests and increasing denunciations in the media. A new government was formed by the usual backroom deals and protests against it were repressed ruthlessly, followed by a blanket media blackout. COVID-19 gave the government the perfect cover to enforce a lockdown.
The book has an important chapter on Algeria. When one recalls the murderous violence with which the military regime established itself from 1992 onwards – 200,000 people died in the civil war that followed and tens of thousands disappeared – it is clear that the current protests demonstrate a remarkable bravery. Yet millions have taken to the streets in the uprising that began in February 2019, sometimes twice a week or more. As chapter authors Hamza Hamouchene and Selma Oumari argue, “What makes this movement unique is its huge scale, peaceful character, national spread, including in the marginalised south, and massive participation from women and young people who constitute the majority of Algeria’s population.”
The uprising was sparked by President Bouteflika’s plan to run for a fifth term, and economic and political corruption amid growing pauperisation, unemployment and austerity. Despite millions on the streets every week, not a single Algeria-based TV channel covered the protests, such was the fear of the military.
The movement sustained unity across different classes and succeeded in forcing Bouteflika to resign. An active boycott of the electoral charade of December 2019 was followed by new protests when the results were announced. There is also an open anti-colonial element to the uprising, with the imperialist pillage of the country’s resources clearly highlighted in protestors’ demands. Only the worsening COVID-19 situation forced the suspension of the mass protests, a breathing space exploited by the authorities to crack down on activists.
One country heading in a more positive direction is Sudan, which has had civilian rule for only eleven out of 64 years of independence. Events of the Arab Spring were followed closely in Sudan, a country where state brutality was operating at unprecedented levels. The declaration of independence by South Sudan in 2011 triggered a rapid deterioration in the economy, as most of the oilfields were in the South. Government-imposed austerity led to strikes and protests which were brutally repressed.
In 2018, popular protests against skyrocketing prices drew the support of the banned Sudanese Professionals Association, which organised a weekly schedule of marches and initiated a ‘Declaration of Freedom and Change’ which united most of the opposition political forces. The movement defied the government’s state of emergency and pitched battles ensued with the security forces. Unrest among soldiers led to the military removing al-Bashir’s dictatorship from power in April 2019 – but this was just a start. Violence against protesters continued under the new Transitional Military Council, culminating in the all-out attack on the Khartoum sit-in which saw mass rape by soldiers and over 100 protestors killed.
The international outcry and renewed protests, however, forced the military to negotiate a real transition, and a constitutional charter establishing a period of co-governance was signed. A new government, led by an ex-UN economist, has reformed the b